On Hypocrisy and Moral BS

1. Lifestyle Gaps
In the recent book unChristian, the Barna Group has done some interesting research on how people perceive Christians. Much of the research focuses on the opinions of younger persons and people who are not Christian. The general conclusion of the Barna research is that young "outsiders" (non-Christians) and young Christians have a very negative view of the Christian brand. More specifically, they tend to see Christians as "unChristian" in their attitudes and behaviors.

One of the adjectives applied to Christians is that they are hypocritical. The data on this adjective is presented in Chapter 3 of unChristian. Here are some highlights from that research:

--84% of young "outsiders" (non-Christians) report personally knowing a Christian. However, only 15% of these individuals report seeing a qualitative lifestyle difference between the Christian they know and themselves.

--Engaging in the following lifestyle activities are statistically equivalent when comparing Christians with non-Christians:

visiting a pornographic website
consulting a medium or psychic
physically fighting
consuming alcohol to the point of intoxication
using an illegal, nonprescription drug
getting back at someone (revenge)
saying mean things behind a person's back

--There are some differences between Christians and non-Christians. Christians are more likely to own a bible and go to church. Christians are less likely to use profanity, although not by much (26% Christian, 38% non-Christian). Christians are more likely to help a homeless person, but not by much (53% Christian, 45% non-Christian). Interestingly, Christians also differ from non-Christians in that Christian are less likely to recycle (68% to 79%).

Looking over all this data the authors of unChristian coin the term "lifestyle gap" as the root issue in perceptions of Christian hypocrisy. Specifically, there is a gap between the lifestyle Christians say they live versus the lives they actually live. Phrased negatively, non-Christians fail to see a lifestyle gap between themselves and their Christian friends. Being a Christian doesn't seem to have any impact upon how a person lives.

2. On Lies and BS
Now, anyone remotely familiar with the gospels knows that religious hypocrisy drove Jesus nuts. Jesus hammers hypocrisy in the gospels. So it's a bit worrisome that his followers--Christians--are generally seen as hypocrites. How did this situation come about?

To answer this question I'd like to make an analogy between what goes on in the moral realm with notions related to truth-telling. Specifically, I'd like to borrow from Harry Frankfurt's work analyzing BS and lying to suggest that Frankfurt's distinction between lying and BS might help us understand the cause of the "lifestyle gap" implicated in Christian hypocrisy.

In his best-selling essay Harry Frankfurt, Princeton philosopher, sets out to distinguish lying from BS. Specifically, is there a difference between telling a lie versus BSing someone?

On the surface, the two concepts of lying and BS seem related. We instinctively feel that both lying and BSing have some relation/application to truth, or, more precisely, the lack of truth. That is, when we call a speech act a "lie" or "BS" we are stating that we are unsatisfied with what we have just heard. Specifically, we don't think we have been spoken to truthfully.

But according to Frankfurt the relationship between lies and BS is more complex than at first it seems. Lying and BSing are not quite the same thing. What, then, is the distinction between lying and BSing?

Summarizing greatly, Frankfurt's analysis is this. Lies and liars are very concerned with truth insofar as they are trying to hide the truth from us. In fact, a necessary condition of a lie is a knowledge of "how things stand," of the truth.

But BS, according to Frankfurt, is a speech act that is indifferent to truth. A BSer speaks about things asking us to treat his speech as a legitimate transmission of information. But in reality the BSer neither knows of what he speaks nor is concerned to "get things right." Quoting Frankfurt (*'s are mine):

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bulls**t requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bulls**tter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may pertain to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose." (pp. 55-56)

In the end, Frankfurt suggests the following distinction lying and BS. Lying is a distortion or hiding of truth. By contrast, BS is an indifference to truth. This distinction might make BS appear to be more mild than lies, but Frankfurt would disagree. According to Frankfurt, indifference to truth is much worse than hiding it:

"[The bulls**tter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bull**it is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are." (p. 61)

Why would Frankfurt make this claim? For Frankfurt, liars at least care for the truth, if only to hide it. But when a culture gets saturated with BS then concern for the truth gets lost on a grand scale. What worries Frankfurt is that people are getting lazy and careless about the truth. And as we grow mentally lazy and careless the truth gets lost. All that remains in civic dialogue is BS, advertising, and spin.

3. Moral BS
Why is there a lifestyle gap in the Christian population? Most non-Christians see the answer as a clear case of hypocrisy. Christians don't live up to their ideals because they are hypocrites.

I'd like to quibble with that analysis. I don't think that, at root, Christians are hypocrites. Borrowing from Frankfurt's analysis, I don't think Christians are willful liars, morally speaking. Rather, I think Christians are more like moral BSers. Let me explain.

The word hypocrite comes from a Greek word--hypokritēs--which means "actor." And the most common definition of a hypocrite is the following:

--a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion

The point here is that the notion of a hypocrite is similar to Frankfurt's notion of lying. That is, the hypocrite is like a liar in that the hypocrite is "acting" and putting on a "false appearance." In short, deceit is the core notion of hypocrisy.

Given this definition I would thus disagree with the label "hypocritical" being applied to the general Christian population. I live within the Christian population so I know these people well. And from what I know of Christians few of them are willfully deceitful. Few seem to warrant the label hypocrite.

But clearly there is a lifestyle gap. If so, what is my explanation for the gap if not hypocrisy? My answer is that we have no good word for what is going on. Hypocrisy, with its notions of intentional deceptiveness, isn't a good word for the phenomenon. The best word I have for the problem is BS, as defined by Frankfurt. The problem with Christians is a kind of moral BS.

Recall, according to Frankfurt BS is an indifference to truth. This indifference to truth is often caused by a kind of laziness, of failing to do the work to "get things right." This is what I see happening among Christians. I don't see a lot of willful hypocrisy, but I do see a lot of talk about righteousness and holiness and compassion with little energy devoted to examining how all that talking is cashing out in the real world. In short, Christians talk a great deal with little effort expended in moving from words to deeds. Outsiders hear all that Christian moral chatter and they also observe the lifestyle gap. The only word they have for what they are observing is hypocrisy, but I think a better word is BS.

Christians just stand around in church BSing, morally speaking.

4. The Disjoint between Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy
The root cause of Christian BS is the disjoint between orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the Christian tradition. Specifically, for a variety of reasons, Christianity came to emphasize "right belief" over "right action." Being a Christian meant one believed certain things (e.g., that Jesus was the Son of God). Assenting to these propositions and mastering the God talk that surrounded them grew to define what it meant to be a Christian. But once orthodoxy became separated from orthopraxy the specter of moral BS entered. That is, as Frankfurtian BS is decoupled from truth so Christian belief became decoupled from discipleship. The disjoint didn't (and doesn't) emerge because of willful deception (hypocrisy). Rather, the disjoint was (and is) due to a kind of carelessness, a thoughtlessness that entered the Christian faith.

To the outsider, the only word to describe what they saw was hypocrite. But I think a better word is now at hand.

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10 thoughts on “On Hypocrisy and Moral BS”

  1. I think there is a word for this in ethics: Akrasia

    Akrasia is moral incontinence. The inability through carelessness to control one's own behavior according to your own espoused morality.

  2. First off, thank you for your series on Calvin and Hobbes. It was enjoyable as much as it was thought provoking and a new way for me to enjoy the comic strip I grew up on.

    Secondly, thank you for correctly labeling the gap that we all see in Christians around us and in ourselves. When Brian McClarren came to ACU for Summit he spoke of the disjoint between our "system of beliefs" versus our "way of life." I believe your thoughts on orthodoxy and orthopraxy tie in extremely well with his assertions. Thank you for another thought provoking post, you have challenged me to examine my life and the levels of my moral bullpoop.

    Caleb Courtney

  3. This is interesting post vis-à-vis the recent gay rights vote in California. The religious right has been taking a lot of heat for their position and I’ve been reading and listening to the fallout. I pull this recent example from the news’s pages as I’m interested in further comments. This issue is a very obvious target for this discussion and a good example of a source for many people’s perceptions. If I’m not mistaken this is some of hypocrisy to which you refer; the exception being that this is institutional hypocrisy verses personal hypocrisy. (I have an impression that on a personal level many would not choose this position, but that is a new discussion altogether) I think the uninitiated look at the issue from the outside and instinctively “feel” the religious position’s duality. This “feeling” is referred to as hypocrisy. When one takes the issue apart there are some complicated complexities regarding morality, government, and biology and liberty – just to name a few. However, the overall religious position is inherently incoherent. Overall belief and specific action are at odds. Isn’t that hypocrisy?
    (BTW – I hadn’t seen the word orthopraxy before so I went after it and the free dictionary (www.freedictionary.com) gave this definition: n. 1. (Med.) The treatment of deformities in the human body by mechanical appliances. I have a vague suspicion that this isn’t right. Wikipedia did a bit better)

  4. This post is a fascinating analysis. This is an interesting insight for me (a non-Christian)into the thoughts of a serious and thoughtful Christian. As a serious and thoughtful (I hope!) Jew, and as a Jew who has committed her life to the service of the community, I find a similar disconnect in different factions of our community. Although in many ways it is the 'orthopraxy' that sometimes drowns out the 'orthodoxy' within certain factions of our community.

  5. I am still thinking this through, but there is something wrong (can't be more accurate than that) with positing too much on the opinions from the outside. In conversation with a friend she has the following points: "I think what the non-Christians and young people are missing, though, is a belief in Jesus, a knowledge of him. But then, what is worse? Non-belief because you haven't been taught, or belief accompanied by moral BS? And do the nonbelievers know how very hard some Christians try? It's true that some don't; they go to church, they say the right things, but once they get home, life goes on very much like that of a non-believer. Others spend a lot of time in prayer, and they get involved in Christian activities that they really care about. Lots of variations on this, too. I think there's so much moral BS because being true, nonhypocritical, all-the-time perfection is impossible. I suppose there are some people out there who never do anything hypocritical or wrong (maybe a few somewhere). So are the non-Christians/young people taking the easy way out, a moral high ground?"

    And I think she has a few good questions in there.

    Finally - how about the "Hobbes" factor? As you put it, "The verification of Jesus's claims must be discovered from the Inside, by participating in the journey. Because from the Outside it's all just stuffed tigers. But on the Inside, well, it's Hobbes."

    The same is true about whether it 'looks' like hypocrisy, BS, or just plain ol' Original Sin.

    Tks for the always conversation-encouraging posts.


  6. Aric,
    I think akrasia has a lot to do with it. I see the BS diagnosis as pre-volitional. That is, not even taking the time to think about it. However, once thought of, akrasia explains a great deal of the lack of follow through, morally speaking.

    No series. Just a thought I had while writing about Calvin and Hobbes.

    The connection is apt. A lot of my thinking on orthopraxy is inspired by the emerging people. Particularly Peter Rollins.

    See my Prop 8 post! In short, I agree with you.

    Thanks for stopping by. I always learn from perspectives outside of the Christian tradition.

    I see your friend's point. It is always possible that any outsider would see a religious group as hypocritical. And, of course, all those who self-identify as "Christians" aren't the kind of people who we'll call "committed." That is, rather than a few bad apples spoiling the batch, it's a whole lot of apples spoiling it for the few.

    So, to clarify, I'm really not talking about the few, the remnant, "inside" the large group of nominal Christians. I am talking about that larger group. And I think, and I bet your friend would agree, that the larger group of nominal Christians doesn't behave in a very Christian way. At least the statistics don't bear that out. So how to look at that group? Are they deceitful hypocrites? No doubt some are. But the the vast majority, to my eye, seem more thoughtless than deceptive.

  7. I have two comments.
    1.)On a personal note, I struggle to know what it is I believe, and why. I have transitioned from evangelical faith and have become skeptical, while wanting in some ways to believe. Therefore, I (and others like me) may see things differently on different days, depending on what I am exposing myself to and how I am understanding and processing that into my thinking...Does this mean I am lying or BSing when I do so? I think there are many reasons that one believes, but my personal reason was a need for family and unconditional love and acceptance with no manipulation or control. That image and need which was met by theology and the experience that affirmed my understanding helped to formulate my worldview and commitment. But, when a worldview is challenged and cognitive dissonance happens, while at the same time needing for personal reasons to continue to believe, it causes a true crisis of trust in the ability to believe...which is based on one's own personal self-doubt, as well as experience and cognitive dissonance...
    2.) I don't believe that Martin Luther's questions to the Church and his own personal crisis of faith were BSing or lying, but a culmination of psychological abuse by religion. I think all of us have a limited capacity for abuse. Abuse creates another cognitive dissonance when it comes to religious teaching. If God loves, then...Why? or How? and if there is collaborating evidence that undermines "faith claims", it is more reasonable to not believe...

  8. BTW, as one who has studied psychology of religion, do you find that it is often the case that those who believe in a simplistic way are really undeveloped emotionally? If so, then, wouldn't it be better for the individuals to get counselling to overcome their emotional immaturity, or do you think that there are some people who are going to be stuck in their immature state, and religion is their way of coping?

  9. Richard,
    I would like to read your Prop 8 post, but I'm not sure which one that is? Can you help me out.
    BTW - I've been reading you for just a short while, but I find your words so interesting and thought provoking. Thanks for "thinking outloud".

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